Slicer-tomato rigatoni marinara: 61 cents/person

My next door neighbor grows a lot of slicer tomatoes. Pounds  upon pounds of slicer tomatoes. It’s the end of September, for crying out loud, and her plants are still groaning with big boys and beefsteaks while my spindly little San Marzano bushes are already starting to yellow.

Thankfully she’s also very generous with the tomatoes. Even though deep down inside I know they’re slicer tomatoes and will yield nothing but a pot of seed-filled red water,  I can’t not make sauce out of them. I’ve tried pureeing. I’ve tried roasting. And even though I knew it was predestined to be an epic failure, I even tried my usual go-to favorite, Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce with onion and butter (link), which required stubbornly boiling 5 pounds of tomatoes for two hours to get a consistency even close to something resembling sauce.

Today she brought even more tomatoes. I accepted them somewhat resignedly, knowing I wasn’t going to be able to stop myself from making sauce. But then I had an idea—what if I used the excess liquid, rather than water, to cook the pasta? That way the pasta would not only absorb some of the liquid, but the starch in the pasta would thicken the sauce and give it some much-needed body.

And I’ll be damned, it worked. It worked exactly as I hoped it would, and ended up being one of the best tomato sauces I’ve ever made—rich yet tangy with huge tomato flavor.

1 oz. Parmesan cheese, grated ($2/4 oz.): 50 cents.
8 oz. rigatoni (89 cents/lb. at Grocery Outlet): 44 cents.
3 T butter (from a 50-cent cube): 18 cents.
3 cloves garlic, crushed (1/4 of a 25-cent head): 8 cents.
Kosher salt and granulated sugar to taste (both bulk): 2 cents.
3 lbs. slicer tomatoes from neighbor: $0.
Basil (from the garden) for garnish: $0.
Total: $1.22/2 servings = 61 cents/person. 

Roughly chop the tomatoes and throw them in a large saucepot with the crushed garlic and butter. Bring to a boil; when a lot of liquid has been released, dump in some kosher salt. I wish I could tell you how much salt I added, but I have no idea. I just know it tasted kind of salty—not as salty as normal pasta cooking water, but saltier than a normal tomato sauce would be. Keep adding, and keep tasting.

Dump in the pasta—so long as your tomatoes are super-juicy, there’s no need to add any extra water—and cook for the time specified on the package. When the pasta is al dente, stir well for about 30 seconds, turn down the heat, and add sugar to taste. I probably added about a tablespoon; adding that many tomatoes makes for a lot of acid. Let it sit 5 minutes if it’s still too liquidy for your taste.

Serve with grated cheese and torn basil leaves.

Feel free to experiment with this recipe. Add red wine if you have some left over, or red pepper flakes, anchovy paste, honey, dried basil or marjoram…whatever makes your skirt fly up. Plus, if you omit the cheese (it would probably be great topped with bread crumbs), it will probably still end up being only 61 cents. Trust me—everything tastes better when it’s under $1.

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